Sunday, 21 February 2016

Royal Oak, Cossington, Leicestershire

Leicestershire's unique contribution to Britains skittles tradition is Long Alley Skittles, or more specifically a version of the game subtly different to that played in neighbouring Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

Several leagues manage Long Alley play in the county, but the majority of competition is covered by just two. Roughly speaking, the Tom Bishop Memorial Skittles League deals with an area to the south of Leicestershire, and the Syston & District Skittles League covers pubs and clubs to the north of the city. Both leagues are currently made up of around two dozen teams each which might seem a reasonably healthy number, but the fact is that the number of teams in play disguises a steady decline in the number of alleys available and in use.

In common with many other venues in both the Tom Bishop and Syston leagues, the Royal Oak at Cossington plays host to both a home team and one recently displaced from the Blue Bell Inn at Rothley. The skittle alley at the Blue Bell was lost to a restaurant conversion in 2014 following a major refurbishment of the pub. Sadly a similar fate has also befallen alleys at the nearby Gate Hangs Well on the outskirts of Syston, and the Coach & Horses at Markfield, both recently refurbished by local Leicestershire brewery Everards.

It's not all bad news for skittles in the area though. New licensees at the Horse & Groom in Rearsby village aim to bring the pubs traditional skittle alley back into use, and are currently looking for teams or individuals interested in playing from the pub. This is a great example of how it only takes one or two enthusiastic individuals to turn things around in pub gaming.

The Royal Oak has certainly seen a few changes over the years. The pubs layout is basically open-plan where it would undoubtedly have had separate rooms in the past. Distinct and separate areas have been included in the layout though, including a pleasant 'Snug' with Dartboard to the right-hand side of the bar servery.

Now if there's one thing that I would like to see retained, or even created as part of the refurbishment of a pub (other than skittle alleys of course!), it's a traditional snug. Thankfully many pubs do still include a cosy, slightly separate space where the more traditional aspects of pub going can continue. In fact it's often this 'snug' space alone that differentiates a pub from being little more than a licensed restaurant.

The licensee of the Royal Oak maintains the skittle alley at the rear of the pub in such good order that it earns its keep not only during league play, but also for private skittles evenings and other functions. A skittle alley can contribute substantially to a pub's 'rateable' footprint, and therefore needs to be used as much as possible.

To this end the hard floor of the Royal Oak's skittle alley has been covered with a laminate flooring at the throwing end, and curtains can be drawn across at various points to create smaller spaces. A small removable section of this flooring conceals the 'tripping hazard' of the 'Mott', the foot-sized depression which a players rear foot must remain in for a 'chuck' to count (above).

Leicestershire's (and Rutland's) other, perhaps surprisingly popular pub game, is Pétanque. There is a Piste to the rear of the pub, and the Royal Oak field two teams in the 1990 Pétanque League.

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